Pasta Shells with Spicy Sausage Sauce

February 27, 2019 (Last Updated: February 2, 2020)
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Spicy sausage sauce tossed with pasta is perfect on a cold winter’s day. This recipe is easy, and yields a smooth and flavorful red sauce packed with delicious spicy sausage flavor.

shell pasta in a red meat sauce

Pasta is certainly one of the most versatile dishes around, and I’m always happy to add new recipes to my repertoire. One of the true delights of making pasta is its ease to prepare. This particular recipe for shells with spicy sausage sauce is no exception. There’s a strange little trick that makes this pasta sauce really special. It may sound a little odd, but you need to mix your sausage meat with cold water. It really yields a smooth meat sauce rather than having large chunks of sausage throughout the sauce. Furthermore, the tomato juice melds with the sausage, and reduces beautifully to nicely cloak the pasta shells in a vibrant red-orange sauce.

overhead view of a bowl of shell pasta in red sausage sauce

If you like your meat sauce with a nice kick, this spicy sausage sauce is the real deal. With very little effort, you can obtain a luxurious, restaurant-quality pasta dish that will satisfy your family and impress guests. It’s hearty and filling. This is one of the best easy pasta recipes for cold winter months, but it also fits the bill for any pasta craving year-round. I halved the recipe when I made it, and would happily make it again in the future. It was spicy, but not too spicy, cheesy, but not too cheesy. In the Goldilocks of pastas, this one is just right.

pasta shells in meat sauce served in a blue bowl

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closeup of shell pasta in red meat sauce

Pasta Shells with Spicy Sausage Sauce

Spicy sausage sauce tossed with pasta is perfect on a cold winter's day. This recipe is easy, and yields a smooth and flavorful red sauce packed with delicious spicy sausage flavor.
Prep Time 30 mins
Cook Time 45 mins
Total Time 1 hr 15 mins
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 4 to 6 servings
Calories 858 kcal


  • 8 ounces sausage meat or 2 hot Italian sausages (8 ounces), casings removed
  • 1 cup finely chopped onions
  • 1 plump garlic clove peeled and finely minced
  • 1 1/2 cups cold water
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds (I omitted this)
  • Pinch of cayenne optional
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cups tomato juice preferably organic
  • 1 pound dried pasta shells, rigatoni, or spaghetti
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano plus more to pass at the table


  • Combine the sausage meat, onions, garlic, and fennel seeds in a bowl with the cold water. Break up the meat with your fingers or two forks, combining it with the other ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to several hours.
  • Transfer the sausage mixture to a large, heavy saucepan with a lid–an enamel-coated cast-iron pot is ideal. Stir in the cayenne (if you would like it more spicy) and salt, and pour over the oil oil. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring often, over moderate heat until all the water has cooked away and only the oil remains to moisten the ingredients.
  • Add the tomato juice, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer for 30 minutes with the lid slightly ajar. Adjust seasoning as necessary, but be careful not to over-salt, as you will be adding cheese later.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt and drop in the pasta. Cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain the pasta and return to the pot, off the heat. Ladle on enough sauce to generously coat the pasta with a little puddle on the bottom. Sprinkle over the Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss. The cheese will thicken the sauce. If it seems dry, add more sauce (I like mine extra saucy so I used all the sauce). Serve right away with extra sauce and cheese passed at the table.

Notes & Nutrition

  • This recipe uses kosher salt (aka cooking salt, kitchen salt, coarse salt outside of the US). If you are using table salt, definitely scale down the salt as that is a saltier type of salt! The type of salt will make a big difference in how salty your food tastes, so keep that in mind.
From On Top of Spaghetti
Servings 4.0 * calories 858 * Total Fat 38 g * Saturated Fat 6 g * Monounsaturated Fat 10 g * Polyunsaturated Fat 2 g * Trans Fat 0 g * Cholesterol 16 mg * Sodium 796 mg * Potassium 926 mg * Total Carbohydrate 106 g * Dietary Fiber 5 g * Sugars 14 g * Protein 33 g
*All nutritional information is based on third-party calculations and should be considered estimates. Actual nutritional content will vary with brands used, measuring methods, portion sizes and more.*

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